By Kim Bellard, April 28, 2016
Face it: health care IT infrastructure is a mess. After spending tens of billions of dollars to "incent" providers to move to EHRs, they're using them but are not very happy with them. We now have millions of electronic records that are still way too siloed, and all too often incomplete.
To the extent most people think of blockchain at all, it is in relation to one of its most prominent users, Bitcoin. Bitcoin, which has its passionate advocates and equally passionate skeptics, is not synonymous with blockchain. Blockchain is the technology that allows Bitcoin to operate, but they are no more one and the same than Salesforce.com and Oracle are.
In layman's terms -- and, trust me, when it comes to this I definitely am a layman -- blockchain is a set of distributed records, or databases, that are shared by multiple parties and which can only be updated by a majority of those parties. There is no central authority, no central database. It reminds me of the Internet's distributed networks, which help assure its robustness.
Equally important, in blockchain once a record is stored (or "transcribed"), it can't be tampered with. For better or for worse, Bitcoin has demonstrated that blockchain does, in fact, assure anonymity, privacy and security.
Blockchain is starting to become more visible even outside of Bitcoin. Businesses are being told they need a "blockchain czar. Wall Street is starting to embrace it. Britain looking into using it for manage the distribution of public money
Some people think it is the greatest thing since sliced bread -- or, in modern terms, since the Internet. IBM's Jerry Cuomo says: "Blockchain has the potential to become the technological foundation for all electronic transactions conducted over the Internet."
If they are even remotely right, blockchain is something that we better be paying attention to, and what industry needs its advantages more than health care?
We're already beginning to see blockchain show up more in health care. For example, Gem just announced Gem Health, As they say: "We need a modern infrastructure that unlocks new channels for services to connect, while balancing the need for strong data privacy and security. Blockchain technology is that infrastructure."
Philips is onboard, with the Philips Blockchain Lab joining the Gem Health network.
It's not going to be easy. Health care has had a hard time agreeing to things like ICD-10 or HL7, much less interoperability standards. In CIO, Peter B. Nichol points out the need for foundational protocols, such as the Linux Foundation's Hyperledger project is working on If we thought getting providers to use EHRs was hard, picture trying to get the health care industry onto a entirely new technology platform like blockchain.
True to form, the "HIT standards mandarins" are already showing resistance to blockchain.
However, Mr. Nichol also enumerates a number of companies already jumping on the blockchain bandwagon for healthcare uses, including not just Gem but also Tierion, Factom, HealthNautica, and Guardtime. It is something that any organization involved in health care can ignore only at their own risk.
Look, I'm no technology seer. I don't know if blockchain is going to totally revamp how we store and update data, as its proponents claim. What I do know is that, when it comes to health care, our current approaches are not getting us to the interoperability that we need, or are doing so only at glacial speeds, and that they allow our electronic data to be increasingly vulnerable.
If not blockchain, what?